Thursday, 2 October 2014

Star Wars comes home: The history of the 1977 film on VHS and Beta

Star Wars at home: the original US
VHS version from 1982

The history of Star Wars on home entertainment formats is long and complicated, but for a long time it could be boiled down to one simple rule:

Every time you bought the film in what you confidently believed to be the ultimate, definitive edition, Lucasfilm would release another one.

That was the rule of thumb for a long time, but later it became clear that a rider had been added, which was this:

While George Lucas was happy to release all kinds of enhanced deluxe versions of the film, he was never again going to release the movie as seen by the original audiences in 1977-78.

Star Wars before VCRs

Star Wars is a film from the pre-home video era. VCRs existed then, but very few people had them. And a few years later, once video had become ubiquitous, it would be almost impossible for a film ever to have the same impact .

Only in that pre-VCR age could Star Wars, released in May, still be running in some US cinemas fourteen months later, after which it was immediately re-issued.  It's impossible for that to happen now. Twenty-eight years later, for example, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith would be released in May and come out on DVD on October 31.

In 1977, the only way of showing Star Wars at home – or at least, decent chunks of it – was to buy the Super 8 movie versions.  I've written about those releases here. The idea of owning a complete film on videotape was a good few years off, but by 1979, Star Wars was helping fuel the demand for the technology.  The TV documentary The Making of Star Wars was released on tape that year, and I remember it being promoted quite heavily in the UK as a reason for buying one of the expensive new machines.

1982: Star Wars on VHS, Beta and laserdisc

The film was finally released on VHS and Betamax in 1982, with a laserdisc release following shortly afterwards. This blog, robotGEEK's Cult Cinema, gives a nice description of the tape, with pictures.

These were the days when rental made up the vast majority of the videotape market, and it would be several more years before Star Wars was available to own at a price which most fans might be able to afford. Many people did acquire the film in 1982, but by taping it off-air when it was first shown on TV.

The film was re-issued on video in 1985, and this release was significant, because it featured a new stereo sound mix by Ben Burtt.  This mix became the basis for every subsequent release until 1993.

The front of the 1980s Star Wars VHS in the UK

The back of the 1980s Star Wars VHS in the UK
While the sound was being improved, viewers were still getting little more than half the picture that had been seen on cinema screens, because Star Wars was being cropped (or 'panned and scanned') to fit the dimensions of a 4:3 TV set. At this time, the idea of releasing films in 'letterbox' format – that is, with black bars at the top and bottom of the screen so that the viewer could see the full width of the cinema picture – was almost unheard of.  

The front of the 1992 widescreen
release of Star Wars in the UK
But in 1992, Star Wars pioneered the idea of the widescreen release when it was re-issued, simultaneously with its sequels.  It's not often given credit for it, but Star Wars was surely instrumental in proving that discerning viewers would rather watch a film in its original shape, rather than have almost half the picture excised to make it fit a traditional TV screen.

The UK saw another VHS release of the original trilogy in 1994, in widescreen and full-screen versions,this time with much nicer covers and a line on the box reading: “New digital PAL masters approved by Lucasfilm for improved picture and sound quality.”

The films were back on video only a year later, this time with a remixed THX soundtrack.  And this time, they were marketed with a unique twist – this would be the last time to own them in their original form. George Lucas had already begun tinkering with the movies for a Special Edition release.

The best Star Wars video release: the Executor boxed set 

In the UK, this final release was accompanied by the issue of the superb Executor Boxed Set – a collector's edition in a numbered metal box which also contained a book of the screenplays and some handsome art cards. There were four tapes in American-style cardboard slip-covers and the content was superb, including the trilogy's various original 'making of' documentaries, original trailers and glimpses of the Lucasfilm archives.

Surely the best home video release of Star Wars: the
UK's Executor boxed set of VHS tapes from 1995

The Star Wars Special Edition on VHS

That 1995 release was indeed the last time the original, unaltered trilogy would be released on VHS, but one more VHS release  followed in 1997, after the cinema release of Lucas's Special Editions. The three films came in a gold package (for the full-screen edition) or a silver one (for the widescreen version) and the films were not available individually. And since the movies would be revised again for later releases on DVD, this was the one and only release of the 'original', theatrical Special Editions.  If you'd like to see how all the VHS releases of the film look when lined up, check out this page from World of Blackout.

Throughout the years of the home video boom, a new generation had grown up who had only seen Star Wars on the small screen.  This fact was rather nicely exploited in this trailer for the theatrical release of the Special Editions.  Star Wars would never be quite the same experience on home video that it had been on the big screen, but the arrival of DVDs and Blu-ray, along with bigger TVs and better sound systems, was closing the gap between the cinema experience and home entertainment.  We should have been able to finally enjoy the 1977 film in high quality at home, except for one thing: George Lucas wouldn't release it.

We'll consider that contentious issue in another post about the frustrating history of the film on 21st century formats.


John I. White said...

I read the second-last line of your excellent post Darren and my blood began to boil all over again...

Theycallmemrsnoo said...

very well written I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece and Lucas is an a hole. I have many of the vhs and the 2004 DVD release of star wars and I personally like the old versions more than the new ones. You're very well read on star wars and I found this work very informative. thank you for writing it.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks Jon. I really appreciate the kind words.

Chris said...

Great article. Love the site.

One small point of correction: Star Wars didn't pioneer letterboxing. Fellini's Amarcord and Woody Allen's Manhattan were notable early home video releases in letterbox format. Allen's preference was for gray rather than black bars.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks for the kind comment, Chris.

I think I was a bit loose with the word "pioneered" there. Thanks for pointing out the movies that came before. Hopefully my point that Star Wars helped win acceptance for letterboxing holds true.

Oddly, the first VHS cassette I ever saw in letterbox format was way further back than that. It was in 1982, when we first had a VCR, and it was a perhaps unlikely movie -- the Burt Reynolds comedy Hooper. I wonder whether anyone else recalls that?

steve said...

I know this site is about Star Wars in the 70s but I had to share my story about saving up the money to purchase Return of the Jedi when it was first released in the US. Back then as we all know 99% of the VHS tapes released cost $80+ retail. In 1986 when Jedi was announced one of the local video stores were selling copies to own.... for the retail price of $80. I took my savings and went down and put a deposit down for a copy. I can't believe in 1986 I was willing to spend $80 to own a film as much I loved it. When it was finally released I went back and paid the rest of what I owed and got my copy. I couldn't begin to guess how long it took me to save up that $80 for the VHS. I had some random jobs here and there but making $3 an hour back then and only working a few hours here and there I'm sure it took a long time. But I remember how excited I was to own it so I guess that's all that mattered. Of course in a few years everything would be available for around $25 and I filled out my collection with Star Wars and Empire. And of course as these things do... all of those tapes were given away by me to someone else to cherish them.

Sam Maffei said...

Um, Star Wars didn't air on TV until 1984 on CBS (January, I think). So many people didn't tape it until 1984.

Mark Newbold said...

Star Wars came on video in 1982, Empire in '84 and Jedi in '86.

Sebastian Hawks said...

It was on cable much earlier, my uncle taped it off one of the movie channels (in the even more horrible 6 hour mode) along with Superman 2 and mailed it to us. It was our first "tape" for this huge top loading $400 VCR. If I recall I think this was 1982.

Unknown said...

One tiny thing, the letterboxed versions (or The Widescreen Collection as it was called) were released in 1991, not 1992. Terrific article though. Really enjoyed it!